Michael Owen's son suffers from condition that has left him clinically blinded: What is Stargardt disease?

Michael Owen’s son once had a dream of following his father's footsteps. It was destroyed when he was diagnosed with a life-changing disease.

Michael Owen son James disease
© Max Mumby/Indigo/GETTYIMAGES
Michael Owen son James disease

Like Gary Lineker and Frank Lampard, Micheal Owen is one of the greats of British football. The legend gave a heartbreaking interview on Good Morning Britain earlier this year (2024). The former England star appeared alongside his 17-year-old son James on the show, and they talked about something that has impacted the whole family: James’ disease.

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James was diagnosed with Stargardt disease when he was just eight, and his health struggles have been tough on him and his parents. He is now clinically blind. Here’s an explanation of the condition and a run-down of what they revealed during the interview.

What is Stargardt disease?

According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Stargardt disease is an ‘inherited eye condition that affects your macula, which is the tiny central part of your retina; the light-sensitive layer at the back of your eye’. It typically impacts your vision when you are looking directly at something, rather than your peripheral vision. This means that it is hard to recognise people when looking straight at them, and activities such as reading are challenging. The condition can also affect how you see colour.

There is currently no cure for this disease, but many hope that with advances in medical technology, people suffering with this condition may see some better treatment offered in their lifetime.

What Michael said about the disease

Michael spoke about how difficult it had been when James was growing up with Stargardt disease. The family didn’t realise he had an issue with his vision, so his behaviour was often misinterpreted. Michael said:

I'd get people coming up to me saying 'just a bit of advice for your son, when he shakes your hand, tell him to look in someone's eye' and things like that - I'd always think to myself 'shall I tell him? No I'll just leave it'

Michael and his son share a passion for football, and this disease obviously had a major impact on James’ skills on the pitch. Michael explained that he is not a ‘pushy parent’, but wanted to help his son. Instead of shouting, they developed a system where Michael would whistle from off the pitch so James knew something was wrong.

Michael explained how painful it is for parents when their child is suffering:

I suppose as a parent, myself and my wife probably felt far worse than James, which sounds really bad.
You want to take all the pain away from him, you feel sorry for him every time he goes to hospital and gets new drops that make his eyes sting and he's crying all day.

He revealed that he and his wife 'go to bed every night praying something will be there to cure him, but at the moment, it's a condition that regresses over time’. Indeed, RNIB states that it is:

hoped that current research and developments into drug and gene therapies will lead to treatments soon for those that are in the early stages of Stargardt, while stem cell therapy can give hope to those who have had the condition for a while.

James had to give up his dream of becoming a footballer

Unfortunately for James, this regression means that the young boy has had to give up certain aspirations—one that is very similar to that of his father's. James, who grew up playing football, revealed that he once had a dream of going professional. He explained that even when he got diagnosed he continued playing, but in the end he realised he could not become a footballer like he wanted. He said as quoted by The Mirror:

I kept playing, but Stargardt's is a deterioration so after a while it just got to the point where I knew I couldn't make a career out of it.

He went on to say that while he was 'still one of the best players' and his eyesight didn't hold him back in the teams he played for, it did 'hold him back to the point where it would be an option to go professional.'

He also addressed his heartbreak over not following his dream when on Loose Women in 2023 with his sister, ex-Love Island contestant Gemma Owen. He said:

I get asked all the time "do I play football" and its heart-breaking because when I was younger I dreamed of being a footballer like my dad because he was my inspiration.

He also revealed that he has found new passions and is 'a lot happier now'.

James supported by his older sister

In the same show, his sister, who has also been supporting him since he was diagnosed at the age of 8, opened up about how she saw everything unfold. She said:

I think at the start it was a little bit of a struggle, he had a few early years quite frustrated but he got to grips with it and is embracing it now.

The now 21-year-old confessed to being the 'protective big sister' and added:

Seeing his mates having fun and games with him, I did get protective some times.'

In 2023, Gemma Owen also became the ambassador for @fightforsightuk. She announced:

Having closely witnessed how sight loss has affected him personally, I am honoured to announce that I am now an ambassador for @fightforsightuk.

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Sources used:

RNIB

The Sun: OWEN AGONY Michael Owen heartbreakingly admits he prays every single night for cure for rare disease that has blinded his son James

The Standard: Michael Owen reveals anguish over condition that left his son James, 17, clinically blind

The Mirror: England legend Michael Owen's son gave up football dream after heartbreaking diagnosis

Daily Mail: Gemma Owen's brother James tells of his 'heartbreak' at being unable to follow in England legend dad Michael's footballer footsteps as he details his battle with a rare eye condition

Vision Foundation

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